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Tilda Swinton on We Need to Talk About Kevin, Her Fratricidal Tendencies, and the ‘Maternal Instinct’ Myth

Tilda Swinton. Photo: John W. Ferguson/Getty Images

People couldn’t stop talking about Tilda Swinton’s seismic performance when Lynne Ramsay’s new film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, premiered earlier this year in Cannes. Adapted from Lionel Shriver’s prize-winning epistolary novel, the film tracks the relationship between a fortysomething woman and her sociopathic, spiteful son (Ezra Miller), from the moment of his conception to her ominous, anxiety-riddled pregnancy, his nightmarish childhood to his adolescent homicidal rampage. We talked to Swinton about what attracted her to the material, her own maternal instincts and fratricidal tendencies, and the stigma of the “bad mother.”

What drew you to this film?
I had been waiting, like pretty much anybody who had seen a Lynne Ramsay film, for her next film. And I was so happy to hear that she was working on anything new, because I knew that she had had a long haul before that — before she started working on Kevin, she was working on The Lovely Bones, which didn’t really work out.

Were you familiar with the book this film is based on?
I did know the book. I was a fan of the book. I had read the book once before talking to Lynne, and I think I maybe read it one more time during preproduction, but tried not to read it beyond that. With adaptations, particularly of good books, you want to forget them as soon as you possibly can. The adaptation process is about trying to peel them off of you, trying to escape — and at the same time there is all this noxious business about feeling weird about all that because you loved the book in the first place. But if you are going to make a film, you have to grow out of it.

It’s a very good book and it is a very booky book. It’s got a lot of words in it. And it’s about trying to explain and understand things through dialogue and communication. The film is not about that at all: It is more about unspeakableness and loneliness and dumbness.

There’s been a lot of discussion concerning what the film is about, exactly. What would you say?
I would say that the film is about one person’s mind. It’s about the unreliable narrator and the corrosive power of guilt in the psyche. That’s kind of the smoothest covering I can imagine on the pill, because it doesn’t set you up to expect any kind of narrative or any kind of storytelling trope that is going to disappoint you. The film is not conventional in terms of its storytelling, and to a certain extent it’s not that interested in storytelling. It’s much more interested in the kind of cinema of atmosphere, which is one of the reasons I wanted to work with Lynne in the first place, particularly on this material. When we started to talk about that kind of atmosphere of discomfort and deadlock in a person, that sort of inarticulacy and the various nuances and aspects of memory and the inability to really know what is true in one’s own life even — that is when I started to get really excited and wanted to work as a performer in the film, and felt that Lynne was actually an incredibly interesting adapter of this material. And that makes it very different again from the book, because it’s not really about accuracy or social commentary or truth.

How does your character fit into all of this?
Well, the project is not about what happens — it’s about my character’s questions about what has happened. And it’s about her fears and the horror of what she knows about herself. It is not really, to a certain extent, about the boy at all. It is more about her, using him as a kind of projection of her own self-loathing. The most horrendous thing for her to stomach is not that his misanthropy and violence is really exotic and foreign; the thing that is really horrendous is that she recognizes it only too well, because it comes from her. He is her.

Through most of the film you only see your character’s point of view, until there is one moment where she and Kevin go golfing together, and she makes this nasty comment about fat people. Do you think she’s responsible for what an ill-behaved person he’s become?
I don’t think it is about her being responsible; it’s about her fear that she is responsible. It’s a crucial difference. It is all about her perception, her emotional force field and the phantasmagoria of that. It has got as much to do with the practical business of bringing up a child as Rosemary’s Baby has got to do with the business of being pregnant. And we also know, in families, it’s so difficult to track the truth. You get to be 40 before someone turns around and says, “You were this way when we were growing up.” And you go “Really? I thought I was this way.” And someone else says, “No, you were this other way.” And yet their truth is absolutely real for them. It’s about that kind of crucible of up-for-grabs-ness that families are.

Did you draw on anything from your own life for the role? I read somewhere that you had tried to kill your little brother when you were a child, but that your family thought you were trying to save him from choking, and that factored into how you approached this material.
We were talking about the idea of monstrousness and evil, and particularly the idea of evil children, and I mentioned that. It is only a few years ago that I had unearthed this memory that I had intended to do away with him, and then ending up saving his life and having this reputation for the rest of my life as his savior. Since then it has been strange for me to imagine that little children don’t do it all the time. I have done a little bit of word-of-mouth research and lots of people admit that they very nearly, you know, killed their siblings. It’s miraculous that more people don’t actually manage to achieve it. The whole idea of naming evil as something foreign and outside of us is deeply irresponsible.

What about your life as a mother?
There was something really important in Lionel Shriver’s book: the assumption that the maternal instinct is kind of a completely natural, foregone conclusion when you have a child. I was aware, when I gave birth to my twins, that it was a lucky break that I was so into them. I had not been prepared for that slightly random element; I just assumed like everybody else that it would just come on. But something kind of wise in me knew that I was off the hook. And then I slowly realized that for millions of women, and billions of children of those women, that kind of amazing chemical, maternal instinct that helps you to put up with the kind of car crash that early child rearing is doesn’t kick in, and they are stuck with this small animal who they have to withstand just because they are their mother. That’s really a taboo to talk about.

The film has been marketed as a story of a psychotic little boy, who grows up to become a psychotic teenager who goes on a school shooting rampage — and the way his mother reacts. Do you think that may distract from the more profound and more universal issues that the film presents?
This is maybe a contentious thing to say, and maybe I will regret it later, but there is as much violence between the mother and the son as what goes on in that high-school gym. There is something incredibly violent about the scene where he says to her, “You know, just because you are used to something doesn’t mean you like it. You are used to me.” And the moment of her not placating him and saying, “Oh darling, of course I like you!” but instead just sitting and silently acknowledging that he is right. It’s incredibly transgressive to see a mother do that, the same way it’s transgressive to see the mother of a screaming newborn baby with some rictus smile on her face because she read some self-help book that says you must always smile at your baby.

Is there anything worse you can call a woman than a “bad mother”? It’s often worse than calling a woman a slut.
It’s such a transgressive thought. I mean, I am all for bigging up the term “good-enough mother.” The whole idea of being a supermother — or even worse than that, a superwoman — is equally dangerous. The idea of being good enough and being natural and being authentic and being human is more important, because that is really the job. The job is to model a human being. I think that this idea of being a superwoman is just as noxious and dangerous.

On a plane recently I watched Kramer vs. Kramer again. Meryl Streep’s character has a young child, and she just can’t hack it. She leaves the boy and his father, who’s left to bring up the child. I was very struck by how radical the portrait is of this woman. I want to do a bit of research to see how that was received at the time. It must have been quite a radical suggestion to say that it was possible.

Do you think there is a benefit to openly discussing the maternal instinct being sort of a construct rather than a natural thing that happens to every mother?
Yes, I do. You know, the Greeks knew about that with their theater. They knew all about the power and the essential social practice of putting on a stage, in a sort of raised platform away from society, all of the un-sayable things. They knew the kind of beneficial cathartic effects of that. It is really one of the things art is there for. My line on this movie is that it is the feel-good movie of the year, because it’s like a homeopathic treatment. Everybody comes out of it having a little bit of the poison, feeling much better about their lives. Parents come out going, “Thank god that is not the story of my kid.” And all the people who haven’t had children come out and say, “Well, that’s an easy decision.”

Tilda Swinton on We Need to Talk About Kevin, Her Fratricidal Tendencies, and the ‘Maternal Instinct’ Myth